Tag: Thriller

Klute (1971)

Klute (1971)

Paranoia runs rampant in this fascinating – and chilling – murder thriller that taps into into conspiracy thrillers

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Cast: Jane Fonda (Bree Daniels), Donald Sutherland (John Klute), Charles Cioffi (Peter Cable), Roy Scheider (Frank Ligourin), Dorothy Tristan (Arlyn Page), Rita Gam (Trina), Nathan George (Trask), Vivian Nathan (Psychiatrist), Morris Strassberg (Mr Goldfarb)

There is one question everyone asks when watching Klute: why the heck is it called Klute? Would calling the film Daniels have been too dull? Would Bree have made it sound like a history of cheese? Klute is dominated by its character study of Jane Fonda’s Bree Daniels, split between her desire to be an actress and the comforting sense of control and avoidance of intimacy her work as call-girl brings. Klute uses the conventions of the male detective movie to conduct a sympathetic, compassionate character examination of its female lead. Match that with Pakula discovering his affinity for creeping 70’s paranoia, and you’ve got one of the most interesting and rewarding films of the decade.

John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is a small-town cop called in as a private investigator after a six month New York police investigation fails to find his friend, businessman Tom Gruneman. The only lead they have is a series of obscene letters found in Gruneman’s office written to New York call girl Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda). Klute discovers Bree has no memory of Gruneman, but Klute believes she may be in serious danger. Together they investigate the crime further, which becomes more and more focused on a mysterious abusive client and even more complicated by the growing relationship between the quiet, reserved Klute and the strong-willed, independent Bree.

Klute uses the conventions of a gumshoe detective movie, spliced with a hard-hitting 70s fascination with grimy, sensationalist crimes (this was the same year as hard-bitten, shades-of-grey cops in Dirty Harry took on a serial killer and The French Connection explored the drugs trade), in this case the assault and murder of prostitutes. But this isn’t a whodunnit, or even really a detective story. The film is barely 45 minutes old before Pakula basically reveals who the killer is (the suspect list has only two people on it in any case). Most of the investigation takes place off screen. Some answers are kept vague. There is no cathartic moment of success.

Instead, the film feels far more like it’s using its Laura-ish set-up (the big difference here being the taciturn detective’s love interest is alive rather than just a painting) as a backdrop to deep dive in Bree’s personality. Bree is played with a stunning (and Oscar-winning) verisimilitude by Jane Fonda. Fonda immersed herself totally in the character, even living in the apartment set during shooting (Pakula had a working toilet installed) and developing a careful psychological background to Bree that is brilliantly introduced through our frequent cuts to her sessions with a coolly professional psychiatrist.

This is a portrait of a female sex worker on screen, where she’s neither a tragic or pathetic figure, or a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (the standard tropes). Instead, this is a woman struggling with a crippling fear of intimacy and a compulsion to control, who finds a freedom and release in acting out the fantasies of others. Bree speaks to her psychiatrist of being a call girl not as a curse or source of shame, but something she takes a sort of freedom from. It’s clear that really makes her sweat is not adjusting herself to whatever men want (faking an orgasm while checking her watch with one John, or acting out an elaborate, detailed fantasy for a lonely tailor) but the idea of having to be herself, to display something emotional and true.

And prostitution has the advantage over acting as she sets the terms. We are introduced to Bree as just one in a row of sitting actresses auditioning for an advert, each of them dismissively given a score from A to C. She later auditions for Shaw’s Saint Joan with a detailed, heartfelt reading (she’s clearly a good actress) which is stopped mid-speech by a bored director. With Fonda making clear that control is vital to Bree’s sense of well-being, no wonder she struggles with this dismissive world. Or that she finds a greater freedom in high-end prostitution, where we see she sets the terms with a business-like professionalism and is the centre of the focus and attention of her John’s for the whole of their session. This is a feeling she doesn’t get from anyone else.

What really scares her is the thought of a genuine emotional intimacy with Klute. In their first encounters she assumes she can seduce him with the professional ease she does most men, dropping naturally into her role of seductive dream-girl, offering him sex in return for recordings he has of her from his investigation. Later she will prove a point by coming to him in the night and seducing him with a pretence of vulnerability and fear, as if to prove to him (and herself) that she can work out exactly what mood she needs to control any man.

But it’s buried in genuine fear about emotional attachment. To her psychiatrist she talks about not understanding why Klute seems, with no ulterior motive, to be concerned for her safety and well-being despite the things he’s knows about her or that she’s done and said to him.

There is a marvellous scene where the two of them go shopping for fruit (Klute of course knows exactly how to choose the best fruit, he’s that sort of guy). First, she impulsively steals an apple like a naughty, impulsive child. When Klute responds with a bemused half-shock, she stands behind him, a grin spreading across her face, then she lightly rests her head (almost not touching) on his back – then follows him down the street, holding the end of his coat. It speaks worlds of how something in her emotional growth has been slightly stunted somewhere along the line. And the fact this intimacy is followed in the next scene by a drug-fuelled blow-out, speaks volumes of her fear of it.

It’s a brilliant performance by Fonda, throbbing with empathy and emotional complexity. She’s perfectly abetted by Donald Sutherland, who proves himself once again one of the most generous actors in the game. Klute is in many ways the typical rube in the big city, the one honest cop. But he also has a wet-eyed vulnerability, a tenderness and an urge to protect that as motherly as it masculine. He reveals very little emotionally, not from fear but from a shyness.

He’s also an observer. And Pakula’s film partly draws links between detective and voyeurism. Let’s not forget Klute also bugs Bree’s phone and follows her. The camera frequently shoots the action from distance, through windows and looking down on the action: the idea of being constantly observed lingers over the picture, giving it a rich vein of paranoia. The killer listens to disembodied audio recordings of Bree, and these frequently play over the action not only echoing this paranoia, but re-enforcing how her personality is a fractured one between the independent exterior and the less certain interior.

Pakula’s film pulls all this together into something creepy and unsettling but is also a fascinating character study. That is perhaps its best trick. You come into it expecting a film noir or a detective story. What you get is a compelling analysis of the psyche of one woman, who emerges into the picture and takes complete control of it. Perhaps that’s why it’s called Klute – it’s as much a part of the misdirection as everything else. With its psychological complexity and creeping sense of being watched, this would set the tone for many other films that followed in the 70s.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey are brainwashed in The Manchurian Candidate

Director: John Frankenheimer

Cast: Frank Sinatra (Major Bennett Marco), Laurence Harvey (Raymond Shaw), Janet Leigh (Eugenie Rose Cheyney), Angela Lansbury (Eleanor Shaw Iselin), James Gregory (Senator John Yerkes Iselin), Henry Silva (Chun-jin), Leslie Parish (Jocelyn Jordan), John McGiver (Senator Thomas Jordan), Khigh Dhiegh (Dr Yen Lo), James Edwards (Cpl Allen Melvin)

Spoilers: Herein the biggest twist in The Manchurian Candidate is revealed

Korean War hero Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is cold, uncommunicative, reserved and difficult. So why, when asked, does everyone in his platoon say “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life”? Welcome to the world of sinister brainwashing and mind-control. Welcome to The Manchurian Candidate.

Shaw returns from the war in Korea as a Medal of Honour winner. He saved his entire platoon – with the exception of two casualties – under heavy fire and is America’s blue-eyed-boy, already being hijacked by his ambitious mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) as a prop for the Presidential campaign of her second husband, her McCarthy-like puppet Senator John Iselin (James Gregory). But if things are fine and dandy, why does Shaw’s commanding officer Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) keep having a recurring nightmare of a hypnotised Shaw calmly murdering those two casualties in front of an audience of Russian and Chinese officers? Can Shaw be all he seems – or is he the new secret weapon in a deadly Cold War?

A film born at the heart of the paranoia of the sixties – it premiered shortly after the Cuban Missile and would be followed a year later by the assassination of JFK by the Shaw-esque Lee Harvey Oswald – The Manchurian Candidate captures the mood of its time in a way few other films have done. On top of which, it’s a brilliant, edge-of-your-seat ride, crammed with complex psychology and chillingly cold-hearted violence, directed with a more than a splash of cinema verité and plenty of panache by John Frankenheimer at the top-of-his-game. Touches of satire on politics and the media, are mixed with a terrifying fantasia on the powers of mind control. There is no other film that drips with as much sweat as this one (just look at some of those faces!) or plays more brilliantly into our own fevered nightmares of how we can be turned against ourselves.

The action in the film is dealt with all the expertise of a card sharp. The opening scene already tips us the wink about the lies in the memories of our heroes: not only do the soldiers clearly despise Shaw, as he plucks them out of a seedy bar in Korea, but we later see them bundled up by Commie soldiers into waiting helicopters. So, we’ve already got a pretty good idea why Sinatra’s Major Marco is as twitchy and sweaty as he is – and we’re immediately suspicious of just how Shaw managed to get his hands on the Medal of Honour (and why, perhaps, he doesn’t seem that happy about it – as if he already subconsciously knows he doesn’t deserve it).

The truth is revealed to us in an extended sequence that’s a tour-de-force or imaginative visual technique, that Frankenheimer doesn’t get enough credit for. Marco’s dream starts in a genteel hotel in America’s South, with a polite middle-class lady giving a talk about flowers on stage, surrounded by the platoon. The camera moves from the stage in a smoothly uninterrupted 360 turn looking at the audience of similarly middle-class, middle-age belles, before returning to the stage where the hotel backdrop has been replaced by huge banners of Stalin and Mao and our genteel lady has turned into a sinisterly jovial Chinese scientist.

During the sequence that follows, the camera shifts constantly from the subjective (Marco’s false memory of the hotel and ladies) and the objective (a surgical observatory pit with watching Communist apparatchiks), while never interrupting the chilling scientific explanation from Khigh Dhiegh’s (brilliant in every way) scientist. During this inspired barrage of false and true memories, spliced with alarming moments of violence, we witness just how far Shaw’s brainwashing programming has gone as, with complete politeness, he goes about shooting one soldier in the head and quietly strangling another. No wonder Marco – and the other soldiers who all share versions of the same nightmare – wakes up screaming every morning.

And why did they pick Shaw? Well obviously, his mother-fixation already makes him more than susceptible to external control (under hypnosis he describes Marco as his best friend – something that, Dr Lo points out, speaks volumes for his inclination to prostrate himself to authority). Played with an austere distance by Laurence Harvey – the film expertly uses Harvey’s prickly air of patrician woodenness – Shaw is desperately weak-willed and a natural follower, who has never escaped his mother’s influence. He’s already a lonely man, nursing heart-break, loathing the brashness around him with an elitist hauteur, but lacking the force of character to do anything about it. No wonder he’s ready to be reprogrammed.

And of course, there is no controller he is more likely to follow than his mother. Angela Lansbury excels in her finest, most iconic screen role, as Shaw’s ambitious, deadly, controlling and manipulative mother. Is there a finest reveal, than her sudden invitation at a fancy-dress party for Shaw to “pass the time by playing a little Solitaire”? The film skilfully suggests that it is power rather than ideology that motivates Eleanor – even before the reveal she’s clearly the brains in the marriage with her dull husband, and a forceful, overbearing presence to her son. It’s revealed she’s already wrecked poor Shaw’s life – forcing him to jilt his true love Jocelyn (Leslie Parish), because marriage to the daughter of a political rival ain’t part of the plan. Maybe as well she’s motivated by the unsettling air of incest between the two of them.

No wonder Marco starts to feel sorry for him. Sinatra is very good in this film, striking a perfect balance between twitchy unease and a growing fatherly concern for Shaw. Notoriously a one-take actor (a key scene where Sinatra appears slightly out-of-focus – an effect that suggests we are seeing him from the screwed up Shaw’s perspective – was in fact because Sinatra was most effective in the first take, but the camera was incorrectly set-up), Frankenheimer uses his presence extremely well. He has a brutal fight scene that uses every inch of his energy, while he’s not afraid to add a touch of vulnerability into his burgeoning relationship with Janet Leigh’s stranger on a train (despite an initial scene that suggests all sorts of intriguing possibilities, this is a rather thankless part for Leigh, which she still performs expertly). Like Harvey, his face is frequently studied dripping with sweat.

It’s all shot with a brilliantly immediacy. A press conference – where Iselin (the McCarthy satire is hilariously wicked) rants about Commies in the State Department – is shot with such observatory skill, it feels alarmingly real. Moments of lightness – the slightly dreamy flashbacks of Shaw and Jocelyn running playfully together near the sea – are immediately punctured by terrifying moments of unsensational suddenness, none more so than when a programmed Shaw assassinates Jocelyn and her father (the bullet passing through a carton of milk in his hand, which pours out across the floor). It culminates in a race-against time that’s played out with a hair-raising tension.

The Manchurian Candidate combines skilful acting with real cinematic force and invention from Frankenheimer. It creeps into the darkest corners of our mind and invites our nightmares to come out to play. Dark, at times even blackly comic, it’s possibly the finest and most influential conspiracy thriller ever made.

Witness (1985)

Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis have a cautious romance across the divide in Peter Weir’s gripping thriller Witness

Director: Peter Weir

Cast: Harrison Ford (Detective John Book), Kelly McGillis (Rachel Lapp), Lukas Haas (Samuel Lapp), Jan Rubes (Eli Lapp), Josef Summer (Chief Paul Schaeffer), Alexander Gudunov (Daniel Hochleitner), Danny Glover (Lt James McFee), Brent Jennings (Sgt Elton Carter), Patti LuPone (Elaine), Angus MacInnes (Dgt Leon Ferguson), Viggo Mortensen (Moses Hochleitner)

The old world meets the new, when a mother and son from an Amish community find themselves travelling through Philadelphia and the son is the only witness to a murder at the train station. The mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis) wants to help, but is worried about her son Samuel’s (Lukas Haas) safety and is desperate to return home – after all these ‘English’ problems aren’t theirs. However, Detective John Book’s (Harrison Ford) investigation reveals the murder to be the work of dirty cops in his own department – and, after an attempt on his life, he has no choice but to flee back to Amish community with Rachel and son, hiding until he can find a way to set things right.

Directed by Peter Weir with a real professional smoothness, Witness is a triumph of atmosphere and mood, with an intriguing thriller at the heart of it. Weir brings a real understanding and respect for different ways of life, embracing the differences in the Amish way of life but also making some striking parallels between it and our modern world. It’s that emotional maturity and sensitivity that makes the film work: and the most impactful factor is the heartfelt, largely unspoken romance between Book and Rachel. Weir keeps this subtle, gentle and built on suppressed feelings and wordless moments that trusts the audience to understand their bond and their knowledge that their different worlds mean they can probably never be together.

Weir directs these moments with a real romantic simplicity, drawing possibly the most heartfelt, almost boyish, performance he’s ever given from Harrison Ford. Oscar-nominated (his only nomination), Witness is a reminder of how well Ford does both moral outrage and pained suffering. His fury at his corrupt colleagues betraying their badge is as visceral as his sense of fear when he’s chased (first in a car park, then later around an Amish farm) by Danny Glover’s heavy – we always feel worried about Ford’s safety, while also sure he can look after himself. He also works wonderfully with Lukas Haas, Weir focusing on his under-valued fatherly qualities as an actor.

Ford brilliantly combines his decency and world-weary sadness (few actors manage to look more outraged but also resigned when confronted with betrayal and villainy – and is there a more decent, homespun name than John Book?) but Witness taps into his vulnerability more than almost any other film. That’s not just physical vulnerability – he spends a large portion of the film recovering from a gunshot and looks genuinely in fear of his life in the final confrontation – but also emotionally vulnerable.

In a luscious scene he and Rachel (an equally superb performance from Kelly McGillis) dance in a barn to What a Wonderful World by Sam Cooke. As the two shyly and slightly hesitantly exchange looks, both actors allow their characters to hang on the edge of making a clear romantic gesture, but always backing away with laughs and grins. Ford has never seemed more playful, joyfully singing along while McGillis’ emotional frankness and honesty leads makes the scene beautifully romantic, with two people nervous about admitting their growing feelings for each other.

This is just one of several romantic touches that really carry impact. From the moment they arrive in the Amish village, they find themselves drawn to each other. Maybe it’s the charmingly awkward way Book wears the Amish clothes that don’t fit him. Perhaps is the delighted smile and the realisation of her own loneliness in Rachel . But the feelings are unspoken but clear. Both of them are tentative about romance. Book is passionate about justice but surprisingly shy personally (as is all too clear from his bashful talk with his sister earlier). Rachel is committed to her religion, but also yearns for something emotionally beyond what that community can give her (certainly she’s unthrilled by the expectation that she will marry Alexander Gudunov’s Amish farmer, who courts her with a pleasant but romance free dutifulness). Interestingly she is the one more forward in what she wants than Book. For all the film is a gripping thriller, this romantic story is its heart and what gives the film its impact.

The film also works because Weir treats the Amish life so matter-of-factly. The opening moments of the scene, in its simple rural setting and accompanying choral-inspired score could be set hundreds of years ago. It’s actually quite jarring when we find ourselves in busy Philadelphia: but Weir never suggests either way of life is superior to the other. Both are communities with their own rules, virtues and flaws. The Amish are peaceful, but just as capable of prejudice as anyone else. But they are free of the cruelty and violence of the modern world.

A large chunk of the film follows Book’s fish-out-of-water experiences with the Amish, and his growing regard for them reflects the film’s own feelings. He finds there’s a strange peace in the community – and we can see why after we’ve seen the hard-bitten streets Book works. Ford’s real-life carpentry skills have never been used better on film, as Book helps raise a barn (a lovely moment of communal accomplishment). But while the peace is refreshing, he can only change so much. Confronting abusive townspeople (“It’s not our way”/”It’s my way”), Book strikes back. The film’s stance on Book’s smacking down of these abusive street kids is an insight into its maturity: it’s a brief moment of triumph, but is soured instantly by the horror of his hosts – and leads directly into blowing Book’s cover.

But it works because it reflects how we are feeling. Having been led to invest so heavily in a way of life it’s easy to joke about, we feel the same as Book does: those bullies need taking down a peg or two. It fits with Book’s character as well – the idea of corrupt, bullying cops is as repugnant to him as drunken oaths mocking those who choose not to defend themselves.

Weir’s film also successfully creates plenty of thriller beats. Little Samuel’s witnessing of a murder in a train station toilet has a seedy immediacy and sense of danger that really makes you fear for the kid’s safety (and admire his life-saving ingenuity). There’s also rather nicely a simplicity to the film – it’s no whodunnit, we more or less have every question answered in the first half hour. Instead, the suspense comes from if Book can live long enough to hand out justice and how he can possibly manage that from an Amish village.

But Witness’s heart is the relationship between Book and Rachael, wonderfully bought to life by Ford and McGillis. Few thrillers would dare to be as soft and sensitive as this film – or have such restraint. It’s tinged throughout by the careful creation of two worlds that mutually co-exist, but never together. It’s open about the virtues and flaws of Amish life, but offers no judgement on either them or their religion, only acceptance of difference. Witness is a thriller with a heart, combining excitement with moments of heart-rending romance. Professional Hollywood working at its best.

Seven Days in May (1964)

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas find themselves on opposite sides of a military coup in Seven Days in May

Director: John Frankenheimer

Cast: Burt Lancaster (General James Mattoon Scott), Kirk Douglas (Colonel Jiggs Casey), Fredric March (President Jordan Lyman), Ava Gardner (Eleanor Holbrook), Edmond O’Brien (Senator Ray Clark), Martin Balsam (Paul Girard), Andrew Duggan (Colonel Mutt Henderson), George Macready (Secretary of the Treasury), Whit Bissell (Senator Fred Prentice), John Houseman (Admiral Barnswell)

President Jordan Lynman (Fredric March) has completed his signature policy: a nuclear disarmament treatment with the USSR. Some are thrilled, others are horrified. In the latter camp are the Joint Chiefs of Staff, none more so than chairman General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster). General Scott has a plan: a coup to be launched in seven days time, during a training op. But word leaks to his assistant Colonel Casey (Kirk Douglas) who, however much he admires Scott, won’t be party to treason. Casey warns the President – and a race against time begins to stop the coup.

Seven Days in May opens with documentary style footage of clashing crowds outside the White House (one pushing for peace, the other for war) and then carefully balances that style with an unsettling sense of paranoia throughout. People suddenly disappear (once from frame to frame), most of the action takes place in confined spaces. When characters do head outside, they constantly seem to be looking over their shoulder, with the camera watching like a distant observer. The lack of music all adds the eerie feeling that this could just happen.

And, of course you, feel it could. Because we’ve not lost a tingling sense of unease at an over-powerful military. It’s a shame therefore that Seven Days in May doesn’t grip quite as much as it should. I think a large part of that is because the plot is exposed very early – and when Casey goes to the authorities with his suspicions, they are instantly acted on. Thrillers like this often work best with a “one man stands alone” vibe – it’s missing here, and instead we get the President and the cabinet laboriously investigating different elements of this conspiracy looking to turn up enough evidence to prevent the coup before it starts.

The drop in tension could have been counter-balanced if the film had more successfully explored the conflicts and contradictions in America. This is after all a country priding itself as being the home of freedom and democracy – but since George Washington, has had a fondness for installing military men in a job role pointedly called “Commander-in-Chief”. This is a film that could have explored how different parts of American society might admire either an Adlai-Stevenson-style intellectual or a blood-and-guts ‘simple’ soldier. But the film dodges this – and works hard to stress both men act within what they define as honour and the needs of the country. The film is to nervous about any suggestion that Scott’s coup could lead to a proto-dictator vetoing the electorate.

There is also a naivety about the film. A long subplot (not particularly interesting) features Casey being side-lined into uncovering evidence of Scott’s long-term affair. Ava Gardner does her best with a largely thankless part as the woman in question, but there is a touching faith that evidence of this will be enough to destroy Scott. It’s a faith in the system: while the public might be shaken slightly in their belief that Scott is like King Arthur reborn, finding out he’s actually Lancelot is hardly going to weaken his hold over many of his followers – or his military machine.  For a conspiracy film, Seven Days believes conspiracies are a relatively simple matter to defeat.

What’s best about the film – not surprisingly since it’s largely a chamber piece – is the strength of the acting. Produced by Douglas (who generously cast himself in the most thankless role as the decent-but-dull Casey), a cast of stars was assembled. Lancaster was perhaps the only choice as the holier-than-thou Scott, arrogant, morally-superior, cold, distant but capable of inspiring immense loyalty – it’s the perfect role for him and he plays it to the hilt.

The film’s finest sequence is a late confrontation between Scott – Lancaster oozing moral superiority and unhidden contempt – and Fredric March’s intellectual President. March is brilliant, a born negotiator and compromiser – all the skills you need to be a successful politician – with just the right edge of irritation, arrogance and pride for you to know that, even if he is right, he’s no saint. March also gives Lyman an old-school sense of honour and moral principle that makes him unable to cross lines Scott can leave behind him, while still be jittery and waspish to colleagues and friends.

Filling out the cast, O’Brien gives a wonderful (Oscar-nominated) turn as a hard-drinking, good-old-boy Senator who turns out to have principles of iron and the guts to match. Martin Balsam delivers one of his patented put-upon functionaries, struggling to keep stress at bay. Macready is great value as a bombastic cabinet member while Houseman glides above it all as an Admiral to smart to say anything certain either way.

Acting is eventually what powers Seven Days in May and if it never becomes the white-knuckle conspiracy thriller or the insightful political commentary it should be, it just about has enough entertaining scenes to keep you watching.

Odd Man Out (1947)

James Mason is wounded and on the run in Odd Man Out

Director: Carol Reed

Cast: James Mason (Johnny McQueen), Kathleen Ryan (Kathleen Sullivan), Robert Newton (Lukey), Robert Beatty (Dennis), Cyril Cusack (Pat), FJ McCormick (Shell), William Hartnell (Fencie), Fay Compton (Rosie), Denis O’Dea (Inspector), WG Fay (Father Tom), Maureen Delaney (Theresa O’Brien), Dan O’Herlihy (Nolan), Elwyn Brook-Jones (Tober)

Is it set in Belfast, or is it set in Purgatory? We follow in the footsteps of Johnny McQueen (James Mason), a leader of “the organisation” (the IRA by another name), on the run in an Irish city with a bullet buried in him. With the police looking to bring him to book, Johnny has to find his way to safety – easier said than done when pain and blood-loss keeps you moving between consciousness and collapse. Is this Johnny’s dying fever dream? It’s a tempting interpretation of Carol Reed’s stunning Odd Man Out (the first of a hat trick of masterpieces from Reed over three years, the others being The Fallen Idol and The Third Man).

It’s a perfect marriage of styles. It opens with a sense of documentary realism that would do Rossellini proud, the camera flying over its unnamed Irish city. As we dive into the house where Johnny and his cell are hiding out, planning a robbery for much-needed funds, the film tips into a marriage of noir and classic gangster film. After the disastrous robbery, where Johnny shoots a man dead in a scuffle, the film becomes more and more an impressionistic series of vignettes as an at-times delirious Johnny stumbles from encounter to encounter, meeting a host of people who help or hinder him, many of whom want him for their own ends (from reward to bizarre artistic inspiration). All this is intermixed with his own increasingly tenuous grip on reality, some scenes floating and soaring with Johnny’s own fantasies and visions as the bullet in him slowly drains his lifeforce.

As Reed’s film increasingly moves into a world that is a few degrees less real than our own, you could argue that perhaps Johnny was dead from the start. That this is his own journey through some sort of Dante-inspired purgatory. His own odyssey, where he will encounter some who want to save him and others who want to damn him.  Reed brilliantly helps us share Johnny’s vulnerability by taking the film ever more off-balance. From Johnny’s visions of the past in the air raid shelter where he takes shelter we spiral down into a surreal bombed out house and an ending that has the sniff of Greek tragedy.

No wonder Johnny feels disconcerted, as this is a rag-tag city with its own rules. Half under construction, half well-established, where the streets are a mix of cars and horse-drawn cabs, Johnny’s journey takes him from dotty housewives to tramps to saviour priests and Dickensian artists. As his fever takes hold, so does the bizarreness of his settings, until he finds himself in an abandoned grand house leaking snow from outside, being painted by a drunken artist who wants to capture the moment of death on his canvas. It’s a million miles from the forensic reality of the robbery that the film started with. Yet it never feels out of place.

A large part of that is because of how brilliantly the film invests us in Johnny’s journey – with Reed’s inspired camera-work and story-telling pulling us into his experience. James Mason spends large chunks of the film in silence, but his performance is extraordinary. A man who seems partly aware that he’s dying, guiltily wanting to know if the man he shot died. Who even from the start seems to have lost his purpose, doubting if violence can bring the results “the organisation” wants, dazzled by sunlight after years in prison, who leads his cell through habit rather than inspiration. Mason’s brilliance here is capturing the very essence of suffering humanity, a confused and frightened man who struggles to understand what is happening around him. Buffeted by events, he’s sympathetic because he never feels in control.

Partly that’s because death feels like its always been waiting for Johnny. You can see it from the start, as he sits in his hide out wondering what its all been for. Kathleen (well played by an impressionable Kathleen Ryan) can’t get death off her mind as she talks about finding and saving Johnny or dying with him. Sympathetic priest Father Tom (a devout WG Fay) just wants to have the chance to save his soul. There is a sense of inevitability about the film – helped by Mason’s crumbling weakness – that destruction is coming and nothing can avoid it.

Reed’s film also has a brilliant sense of the compromises and shady questions of right-and-wrong. Johnny is a murderer and a terrorist – even if he also is a man plagued with doubt. Kathleen is a romantic and a fanatic. Hotel owner Theresa plays both ends against the middle. The coppers will do their duty, but they don’t seem vindictive, just determined to do what they must. There are no clear moral answers in this film, everyone has shades of grey.

It all combines together into one of the most inventive, dynamic and compelling British films of the 1940s by a director who was entering a purple patch where he could claim to be the greatest director in the world. This is a perfect fusion of styles – part realist, part impressionist – that puts you into a cold reality before tipping us into a poetic never-world where the boundary between life and death seems blurred. With a superb performance from Mason (and the rest of the cast), this is still one of the all-time greats.

Uncut Gems (2019)

Adam Sandler is desperate to make a score in Uncut Gems

Director: Benny & Josh Safdie

Cast: Adam Sandler (Howard Ratner), Lakeith Stanfield (Demany), Julia Fox (Julia De Fiore), Kevin Garnett (Himself), Idina Menzel (Dinah Ratner), Eric Bogasian (Arno Moradian), Judd Hirsch (Gooey), Keith Williams Richards (Phil), Jonathan Aranbayev (Eddie Ratner), Noa Fisher (Marcel Ratner)

Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a Jewish jewellery dealer in New York. Addicted to gambling, Ratner has a mountain of debts – mostly to his loan shark brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogasian). Estranged from his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) and trying to build a new relationship with girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox), Ratner’s life is a mess. His business depends on colleagues like Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) to bring in high-end clients, such as basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself). Ratner hopes an auction for a rare uncut diamond from Ethiopia will get him out of the hole. But, after agreeing to loan the diamond as a “good luck charm” to Garnett, Ratner finds himself in a desperate race to get it back in time for the auction, make enough money to clear his debts – and resist the temptation to throw it all on a big accumulator bet on the next basketball game…

The Safdie brothers’ film is an explosion of frantic energy. Shot with hand-held dynamism and cut with adrenalin-fuelled quickness, every scene has life occurring at hundreds of miles an hour, leaving the viewer struggling to keep up. Like Robert Altman walking in Scorsese land, dialogue frequently overlaps, with the buzz of improvisation and rawness of language. The film rips through events with a headlong force, scenes veering from black comedy, to tragedy to violence with unexpected force.

There is an almost Jonsonian or Moliere sprightliness about the film. Ratner feels like a Volpone, a chancer on the make, trying to keep ahead of his schemes long enough to end out on top. The film plays like a dark farce. Often, at the worst possible moments, Ratner’s opponents or friends appear to ruin his current plan. Ratner’s shop is practically a classic farce set, with its backrooms and magnetically controlled door that doesn’t always open when ordered. But it’s a dark farce, which never lets you forget the threat of genuine physical violence.

The Safdie brothers take a superb chance on casting Adam Sandler. With his gallery of grotesques in a low-brow comedies, it’s easy to forget the commitment and transformational quality Sandler brings to any role. With the film teetering towards dark farce, that energy is perfect. Sandler channels the bombast of Al Pacino by way of the sleaze of Gilbert Gottfried, a raspy voiced would-be-but-never-was, a Del Boy of low-rent crime. It’s a high octane, big performance. But it works because Sandler is aware this is a character always performing, and has taken on a persona of such New York Jewishness (the Safdie brothers have said this was their intention) that it almost feels like his true emotional self has been long buried.

He’s a character who struggles with earnestness and honesty – partly because it brings so few benefits to his world, partly because he’s almost forgotten how to behave other than as the high-octane chancer he presents to the world. In many ways, this is very secure role for Sandler, falling very much into his wheelhouse without the crude gags, but with additional tears. Heavily praised by critics – many of whom perhaps couldn’t bear to sit through his more conventional film work – it’s a strong performance, but not a revelation as many suggested. Ratner is an exaggeration and a tour-de-force, but the real stretch for Sandler is in the smaller, quieter moments (of which there are few) where Ratner has to confront the emotional consequences of his appalling choices.

Moments like this are few and far between, amongst the crazed energy of the bulk of the film, but they carry real impact. It would be easy for this jet-black crime dramedy to overlook its heart, but it’s certainly there. Ratner’s relationship with Julia seems to be a typical gold-digger/older man’s folly, but reveals itself to have far greater depths of emotion than first appears. Similarly, the feud between Ratner and his wife is just part of a wider spectrum of genuine affection between them – even if the idea of continuing the marriage is a joke. Even Ratner and his brother-in-law (a world-weary Eric Bogasian) have moments of genuine affection, for all the threat of violence.

The real villain of the piece, if there is one, is Ratner’s own self-destructive streak. He can’t let the chance of a good score pass him by, and his constant habit of shooting himself in the foot and making the wrong call have led him to the brink of destruction. Not that the film is keen to show us too much of this. Interestingly, for a film about a gambling addict, Ratner’s actual bets have a romantic tendency to come off. In fact, for all that he is clearly in dire straits, the film shies away from showing the real damage that addictive gambling can have.

Perhaps it’s because the Safdie brothers clearly feel very protective towards Ratner. For all his wheeler-dealing desperation, the film lends him a perverted sense of nobility. We can see him lose out on a big deal, get punched in the throat, thrown in a fountain and still he keeps on going (Sandler’s fast talking wildness works wonders here). It’s a flaw in the film for me, that it’s nervous of looking at this self-destructive individual with the cold-eyed clarity that the best of the 1970s film this is partly apeing, would do. It’s a bit like making a film about a drunk, but showing every drinking session as being a whale of a time.

The film culminates in a final wide-eyed bet, mixed with a flurried attempted escape from the crooks. The final act throws in some surprising – and affecting – twists to the tale that stands much of what we have been watching on its head. The film’s frenetic style might, at times, make it a hard-watch – it is so eager to impress that it rarely rests but constantly jumps around like an over-active teenager – but it channels Sandler very effectively, and has the sort of edge too many other films can only dream of. Moments try too hard (the bookending shots that burrow, Fincher like, deep into crevices is a flourish too far), but this is still wire-cracker film-making.

Captain Phillips (2013)

Tom Hanks is kidnapped by pirates in Captain Phillips

Director: Paul Greengrass

Cast: Tom Hanks (Captain Richard Phillips), Barkhad Abdi (Abduwali Muse), Barkhad Abdirahman (Adan Bilal), Faysal Ahmed (Nour Najee), Mahat M, Ali (Walid Elmi), Michael Chernus (Shane Murphy), David Warshofsky (Mike Perry), Corey Johnson (Ken Quinn), Chris Mulkey (John Cronan), Catherine Keener (Andrea Phillips), Max Martini (SEAL commander)

The best of Paul Greengrass’ directorial work brings documentary realism to compelling real-life events, laced with tragedy. He’s made extraordinary films about Bloody Sunday and 9/11 and bought his unique style to Jason Bourne and the Green Zone of Iraq. Captain Phillips continues this, bringing to life the true story of the hijacking of the container ship Maersk Alabama and the kidnapping of its captain Richard Phillips. And this is a brilliantly tense and dynamic film which seizes the viewer in a vice-like grip and never once lets up for a moment of its runtime. 

Tom Hanks plays Richard Phillips, dedicated and professional merchant captain, whose ship is eventually seized by four Somali pirates, led by Abduwali Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who landed BAFTA and  Oscar nominations for this work here). Phillips is determined to protect the crew (who are hidden around the ship), while the pirates are desperate for a life-changing score that could free them from lives of crushing poverty in Somalia. With such high stakes to play for, Phillips and Muse find themselves engaged in a battle of wills and wits – but with only one of them armed with a gun.

Greengrass’ film is almost unbelievably tense. From the first appearance of Muse’s skiff off the Maersk Alabama to the film’s end, Greengrass manages to keep the audience on a knife edge for over two hours – this despite it being based on a true story where we know the hero will come out in one piece. Shot in the typical Greengrass style, with an at-times jittery handheld camera – brilliantly shot by Barry Ackroyd, a master of this style – this is an immersive drama to an extreme degree. You really do feel part of the action, with the immediacy of the shooting infecting the entire viewing experience.

This is powered further by Greengrass’s superb work with actors – and he draws some marvellous performances here. Tom Hanks – inexplicably not nominated for an Oscar – gives a near career best performance as Phillips. Hanks’ natural skill at playing regular, relatable guys in impossible situations is perfect for Phillips, but he mixes it here first a slightly stern authoritative distance Phillips has with the crew and a deep sense of duty. On top of which, thrown into an impossible situation Hanks has Phillips walking a tight-rope of being seen to co-operate with the hijackers, while trying to work against them, while simultaneously becoming increasingly frayed around the edges. The final sequences alone – of a shocked and emotionally exhausted Phillips – were deserving of the highest honours, raw and honest work from Hanks who confirms he is a great actor.

To go toe-to-toe in scenes with Hanks would be a challenge for most actors – imagine how difficult it must be for a first time performer. Chosen from thousands of applicants, Barkhard Abdi is superb as Muse. Confident, determined but quietly, unspokenly, out of his depth, Muse is determined not to be taken for a ride, but also desperately improvising – a man who feels he doesn’t have choices in his own life, so must cling to an opportunity no matter how remote it becomes, until the bitter end. Abdi is fierce and strong – “Look me in the eye – I’m the captain now!” he firmly tells Phillips – but as the film progresses, it’s clear his control over the other pirates is loose and, smart as Abdi is, he’s also naïve in how much power he holds against the might of the US military sent to free Phillips.

Greengrass’ film skilfully adds enough beats of the poverty and desperation of Somalia to avoid these pirates ever becoming just faceless heavies and thieves. The group are introduced in a poverty-stricken fishing village, Muse choosing from dozens of desperate volunteers to man his crew. Muse stresses to Phillips that while there may be more choices than fisherman and pirate, in Somalia there aren’t – and that international shipping lines have disrupted the traditional fishing areas around the Somali coast. These are desperate and determined men –not blindly evil – and they need a massive score – the $30k they’re offered from the ship’s safe isn’t going to cut it.

The film brings this intensity into play for every action of the pirates. Early on, the smallness and decrepitude of Muse’s skiff is compared frequently with the height and vastness of the Maersk Alabama, with the pirates’ daring and dangerous boarding of the ship as tensely involving as the ship’s crew’s struggle to evade them and protect their own lives.

The wide open vastness and hide-and-seek of the Alabama is then expertly swopped for the claustrophobia of the escape ship that the four hijackers and Phillips spend the final hour of the film on. Here anger rises within the ship – cramped, hot, low on water, with some of those in the ship badly wounded – while outside, the US military masses to prevent the ship making it to the Somali shore. Any idea that the pirates will triumph is removed – but the tension still exists as to how Phillips himself can survive a situation on his small boat that is spiralling faster and faster out of control.

All this superbly marshalled by Greengrass from start to finish, the film a masterclass in wringing every drop of expectation and investment from a compelling real-life story. With wonderful performances from the two lead actors, the film never once lets up in its electric pace and all-pervading sense of danger. With Hanks and Abdi superb, it’s a film that won’t let you go for a second. Inexplicably, despite a Best Picture nomination, the main elements of its success (except Abdi) – Hanks, Greengrass and Ackroyd – all missed out on nominations. That’s the problem when you are so skilled you make it look easy.

Jaws (1975)

Shaw, Scheider and Dreyfuss take on the shark in Jaws

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Roy Scheider (Martin Brody), Robert Shaw (Quint), Richard Dreyfuss (Martin Hooper), Lorraine Gray (Ellen Brody), Murray Hamilton (Mayor Vaughhn), Carl Gottlieb (Meadows)

Necessity can be the mother of invention. Perhaps no film demonstrates this better than Spielberg’s sensational smash-hit Jaws. If “Bruce” the animatronic shark had not been so unreliable and unconvincing would the film have become such a big hit? If Spielberg had been able to show a convincing shark, would he have dropped the suggestiveness and unseen terror – not to mention the famous creeping dread of John Williams’ score – and gone for more traditional scares? We just don’t know – but he was certainly forced to be as inventive as possible and it worked a treat.

A quiet community on Amity Island suddenly finds itself falling victim to a terrifying series of attacks from a shark. As people panic – and the death toll rises – only local police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) seems to want to close the beaches and declare an emergency (after all we can’t let the simple matter of a few kids ripped to shreds by the finned killer disrupt the holiday season). But when things eventually go too far on the first day of holiday season, Brody finally gets the go ahead to head to sea and take on the shark himself. Only problem is Brody has a fear of water and no idea how to hunt a shark. Just as well he’s teaming up with Marine Biologist Martin Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and grizzled old sea-dog and shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) for the mission. Though with this size of this sucker, they may need a bigger boat…

Spielberg’s film largely works so damn well because it pushes suggestion over what we actually see. The shark doesn’t appear on screen for well over an hour. Instead, we see only movement of the water, POV shots of the shark and the flailing terror of the victims, dragged hither and yon by the unseen opponent. Spielberg very generously – and perhaps accurately – attributed at least half of the film’s success to John William’s iconic score. The seemingly simple, but devilishly intoxicating music perfectly captures feelings of mounting dread and tension. It’s possibly the most instantly recognisable score in film history, and works an absolute treat to get across the terror.

Because that is what the film is all about. There is a reason why the tag line for the first sequel was “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water”. The film plays on the creeping concern with not knowing what is underneath the still surface of the waters. And the possibility that a monster lurks there ready to destroy us, taps into all those fundamental child-like terrors we have of monsters under the bed. The things we can’t see are terrifying. Spielberg taps into this brilliantly, with the frothing of water or the shark’s movement being substituted by other things – either a part of a pier being dragged in its wake, or the barrels that Quint attaches to it with harpoons to track its movement. A large part of the second half of the film revolves around Quint’s ship being chased by floating barrels – and it works never-the-less.

This sense of terror that the film captures so well – as well as the moments of shock of carefully chosen few beats of gore – is a surprise when you consider that Spielberg today is seen as a more sentimental, family-friendly director. But on this film, he was a young buck still out of the gate – this was only his second theatrical film. Spielberg wasn’t even first choice – although his TV movie Duel, which sees a driver chased by a giant truck, the driver of which remains unseen, was the perfect calling card. When he got on board, he made what he himself describes as a series of rookie mistakes, not least insisting on shooting at sea rather than in a tank or just off the coast. Not to mention the multiple delays from the shark. Despite the film’s nomination for Best Picture (and the millions it earned at the box office), Spielberg was denied an Oscar nod as suspicions abounded that the oft-delayed, over-budget film was “saved” in the editing suite. 

While the film is superbly edited – again that creeping power of suggestion and the way the film leaves much to the viewer’s imagination – it’s much easier now to accept Jawswas Spielberg’s first real flexing of his cinematic muscle. The decision to film at sea – while causing no end of problems for the crew – brilliantly allows for wide shot vistas that creates a real sense of isolation for the boat. It constantly looks small, rattled and fragile in a massive environment, making it feel like even more of a mismatch against the size of the shark. Throw in Spielberg’s brilliance at building tension, and you get a film that seizes you by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t let go. He’s a master here and the film has more than enough famous shots – including the famous reverse zoom on Scheider as he realises the shark is in the water – to show he was just warming up.

It also helps that the film front-and-centres character and good writing alongside all the thrills. Part of the benefit of the films continued delays is that the original script was constantly tinkered and improved by Carl Gottleib from Benchley’s original. Others were bought in to work on it – most famously John Milius who took a redraft pass at Quint’s famous Indianapolis speech, which Robert Shaw himself then rewrote. What we end up with is a script with three well-drawn – and distinctively different but complementary – characters and plenty of sharp lines.

The three stars fill these roles with aplomb. Scheider gracefully accepts the quieter role, but carries the film with an unshowy ease as an everyday hero, eventually pushed to his limits. Dreyfuss gets the more plucky, overtly comic role as the expert biologist and plucky young gun, with a sharp wit and a chippy younger man’s perspective. Shaw meanwhile gets some of the films best scenes as a grizzled seadog with no time for the kids and a dangerous obsession for proving he’s right. The three actors play off each other extremely well, despite the troubles on set (which Shaw was usually at the heart of, from his drinking, to his clashes with Dreyfuss, to his constant flying back to Canada at any opportunity for tax reasons).

But these three actors work brilliantly together, and the film’s tense brilliance still makes it a compelling watch today. And yes, Spielberg was right – that Williams score does play a huge part in its success. Try imagining what you are seeing in the film without the score playing over it? Necessity is the mother of invention.

Cape Fear (1991)

Robert De Niro terrorises his lawyer’s family in Cape Fear

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Robert De Niro (Max Cady), Nick Nolte (Sam Bowden), Jessica Lange (Leigh Bowden), Juliette Lewis (Danielle Bowden), Joe Don Baker (Claude Kersek), Robert Mitchum (Lt Elgart), Gregory Peck (Lee Heller), Illeana Douglas (Lori Davis), Fred Dalton Thompson (Tom Broadbent), Martin Balsam (Judge)

Max Cady (Robert De Niro) is out of prison after 14 years. He went in as an ill-educated psychotic bum, sent down for the rape and assault of a young woman after his appalled lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) buried evidence on her sexual history that might have lightened his sentence. He comes out as a self-educated, articulate and psychotic force of nature, not sorry for one minute and intent on making Sam and his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis) pay. 

Scorsese’s remake of J. Lee-Thompson’s deliberately Hitchcock-esque thriller sees the great director go one better by trying to channel Hitchcock’s style as closely as possible. Framing and editing decisions echo Hitchcock, its design apes as much as possible cinematographer Robert Burk’s lensing, Elmer Bernstein remixes the original film’s Bernard Herrmann score into something even more Hitchcockesque than the original. Scorsese throws in several of the master’s favourite themes, with sexual obsession and frustrated, working men forced to defend themselves in extreme situations. Combined with the sort of lavish violence and extreme imagery Hitchcock couldn’t use, we end up with something like an odd film-school experiment, by film students who have watched too many slashers. It’s grim, tasteless, overlong and troubling – and not in a good way.

The film adjusts Nolte’s character from a lawyer and witness against Cady into his corrupt lawyer (no matter that his corruption in this case was well intentioned). The film has a slightly unpleasant concern with modern worries about masculinity, with Bowden now concerned he is not “man enough” to defend his home – the film constantly passes subtle judgement against Bowden’s lack of physical prowess. It also readjusts Bowden into a weasel, corrupt at work and having an affair with a young attorney (whom Cady then beats and rapes later in the film, with a slightly queasy air that she is at least partly culpable by allowing Cady to pick her up in a bar beforehand). To be honest Bowden is hard to sympathise with, and his quest to assert his masculinity rather than rely on the law or hiring others to do his dirty work not really that pleasant. Frankly Nolte was never the actor to engage sympathies in the way original choice Harrison Ford (he wanted to play Cady) would do.

Cady himself is played by Robert De Niro, channelling heavily the original’s star Robert Mitchum (with lashings of The Night of the Hunter) as the sort of articulate psychopath so beloved by film. It’s fun to watch De Niro grandstanding as this sort of violent Tyrannosaur, weaving both psychological and shockingly violent games to unnerve and panic Bowden and his family. The film doesn’t give much scope to make Cady much more than a sort of comic-book monster, but De Niro does at least have moments of reflection in amongst his insanity. And there is a sort of admirable emotional intelligence in Cady’s knack of detecting the underlying tensions in the Bowden’s marriage and family life and exploiting these to torment the family.

The film’s most effective moments are the quieter ones, none more so than Cady’s quiet befriending/seduction of Bowden’s daughter Danielle behind her parents’ back. This culminates in a deeply unsettlingly seduction scene in Danielle’s school hall, where Juliette Lewis (extremely good) fascinatingly and bashfully becomes entranced with Cady’s interest in her teenage reading list and problems with her parents. The sexuality of the scene is possibly even more unnerving today and a highlight of the film – not least, ending as it does, with Danielle sucking Cady’s thumb before kissing him and leaving with the giddy, confused excitement of someone both scared and fascinated. Few other things in the film match this moment for psychological complexity – or the unsettling exploration of teenage sexuality overlapping with rebellion against domineering parents. 

Least of all the film’s overblown and final confrontation between the Bowden family and Cady, in which Cady rises from death no  less than three times and which stretches on forever, jettisoning all the small stock of goodwill the film had built up in its quieter moments. But then this is just part of a film that chooses the graphic and the overblown over calculated and chilling, every chance it gets. It’s a shame as there is a more chilling, psychological terror film – with Cady as a demonically clever opponent – struggling to come out here, but which keeps tripping into slasher territory with Cady as an invulnerable Michael Myers.

Perhaps Scorsese just thought of the whole thing as a sort of cineaste’s private joke? All the Hitchcock references, the careful apeing of styles, even the casting of the original’s leads in small roles (a joke further amplified by casting Mitchum as the police officer, while ultimate straight arrow Gregory Peck plays a lawyer even more corrupt than Bowden). But jokes like this don’t really make for long-term entertaining films, and Cape Fear is so full of basically horrible people doing horrible things to each other (in an increasingly Grand Guignol fashion) that after a while you more than cease caring about it. You start getting actively annoyed by it.

The Third Man (1949)

Orson Welles is the dark heart of The Third Man

Director: Carol Reed

Cast: Joseph Cotton (Holly Martins), Alida Valli (Anna Schmidt), Orson Welles (Harry Lime), Trevor Howard (Major Calloway), Paul Hörbiger (Karl the porter), Ernst Deustch (“Baron” Kurtz), Erich Ponto (Dr Winkel), Siegried Breuer (Anna), Bernard Lee (Sergeant Paine),Wilfrid Hyde-White (Crabbin)

It’s regularly held up as one of the cornerstones of classic 1940s film-making – and it has frequently won polls of the Greatest British Films of all time. Does The Third Man live up to expectations? No it excels them. I doubt there has been a film more perfectly assembled than this, one where all the component parts click together to make one perfect whole. No matter how many times you see The Third Man, it weaves its spell every time.

In immediate post-war Vienna, the city is divided into four zones, each run by a different great power (the UK, US, France and USSR). The black market is rife between the zones. Into this city arrives pulp Western writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), here to visit his old school friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) – only to find on arriving that Lime died in a traffic accident, with British policeman Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) insisting that he was a black marketeer. Holly can’t believe Harry was a crook, and decides to investigate himself – on the way falling in love with Harry’s girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli) and finding that nobody’s story on what happened to Harry matches up. Could the accident actually be a murder?

Carol Reed’s atmospheric film is beautifully, perhaps flawlessly directed – so well made that for years there were fevered efforts to assign its brilliance to Welles himself. Which was studiously unfair to Reed, a director at the top of his game in the 40s.  The Third Man was the crowning glory of a run of superbly stylish thrillers that matched thought provoking themes with striking film-making. The film is soaked in the atmosphere of post-war Vienna, a city half shelled out of existence. The film was shot on location, and Reed’s camera captures the “bombed about a bit” shambles of the city, its long shadows, cobbled streets and mysterious alleys.

The Third Man’s filming style also plays into this truly distinctive look. Working with (Oscar-winning) cinematographer Robert Krasker, the film is shot with a luscious almost German impressionistic style, with murky shadows and noirish lighting. Reed uses huge numbers of Dutch Angles to constantly present both this shattered city, and it mysterious story, from disconcerting angles. This visually represents the uncertainty and mystery that drip from every scene, making Vienna look like some sort of sinking ship, disappearing into a mire of crime and guilt. Reed’s camera fills the edges of the frames with tramps, beggars, the dispossessed and the plain scared – a brilliant snapshot of post-war Europe unsure about the future and ripe for exploitation.

The film looks simply stunning, with Reed’s visuals throwing up images that have stuck in film heritage, from fingers poking through a sewer grill, to the iconic entrance of Harry Lime itself (possibly the most famous entry ever). Shadows loom with gigantic proportions over the streets. A final sewer chase seems to take place in a nightmare world of water, false turns and foreboding architecture. And that final shot! Sublime cinema, the stillest shot in the film, and also a superb capturing of the film’s themes of loyalty, duty and betrayal.

The film was scripted by Graham Greene, and occupies a wonderful corner of Greene-land. His original concept was for Holly (or Rollo in the original script) and Harry to be British public schoolboys – a plan rejected when Hollywood co-funding came to call – but it did allow Holly to be transformed into a naïve American, lost in the cold realities of post-war Europe. Holly believes in the world of black and white, and writes stories where good triumphs over evil in the Wild West. He’s adrift in a Europe where everyone lies habitually, morality is flexible, and nothing is as it seems.

Holly is bound by old chains of loyalty to Harry – but how far does that loyalty stretch? What price personal loyalty when confronted with the impact of what a person has done? Joseph Cotton’s performance is pitch perfect, a middle-ranker who has orbited his whole life around brighter stars like Harry. How one-way was the relationship? Can Holly ever think for himself? 

And is the right thing to do to walk away or try and correct the wrongs done by another?This divide is shown in the relationship between Cotton’s Holly and Alidi Valli’s sensational turn as Harry’s ex-girlfriend. A woman who has seen the harshness of the world, and been through a war-torn life that Holly would struggle to even comprehend, she’s a woman to whom personal loyalty trumps all things. Should you be loyal to the man you know, your experience of him – or do you have a higher loyalty that trumps that? Anna is firmly of the belief that she knows all that she needs to know of Harry and she needs to learn no more. It’s the sort of European post-war compromise that Holly can’t adapt to, the ideas of morality becoming mired in shades of grey.

It’s a world he struggles to adapt to, but is a cold hard reality for Trevor Howard’s Major Calloway – a superb performance of cool reserve that hides a strong sense of justice. Howard’s wry half-smile and control is perfect for the film, and his disgust at the actions of black marketeers is subtly and brilliantly conveyed by both the actor and Reed’s restrained direction – a visit to a children’s ward full of victims of Lime’s penicillin, is notable for leaving everything to our imagination and communicating another loss by showing a Teddy bear being dropped into a box.

And the cause of all this suffering? Why it’s none other than Harry Lime himself. No film ever captured Orson Welles’ impish charm as well as this, his shy grin and air of an enfant terrible turned terrible are brilliantly captured in the boyishly young but demonic Harry. A Mephistopheles placed on earth to tempt men like Holly, Lime argues what do a few people (or dots) here and there really matter in the long run? After all governments sacrifice them all the time – look at Vienna! – why shouldn’t we? What’s the problem? Lime grins and casually outlines a demonic view of the world, casually uses a cheap historical justification or two, and then saunters off never suspecting that he could lose the argument. Like Welles himself, he has all the glamour and magnetism that we could never have, and to live a few moments in his shadow, as Holly and Anna do, is to live a lifetime.

So Holly has to make a choice – the friend he knew, or the strangers he has seen harmed. The film charts the slow passage to making this hard choice, presenting us with a man who refuses to believe his friend could be anything other than the victim of persecution, to the man who is destined to turn him in. With the framework of Carol Reed’s superb filmmaking, it’s still an absolute treat.

And finally, The Third Man is blessed with perhaps the most perfect film score of all time. Recorded by Anton Karas – literally discovered playing the zither on the streets of Vienna – the score is jaunty, lyrical, schoolboyish even but can switch subtly to something quite disconcerting. It perfectly captures the schoolboy bravado of Holly and the childish lack of morals of Lime. As a match with the bombed out Vienna and its rundown, cynical citizens, it’s perfect. Like all things with The Third Man, it just works better than you could ever have hoped.